Research Paper: Transforming Heroic Leaders To Agile, Post-Heroic Leaders

Eva Gysling_Research_PaperResearch Paper By Eva Gysling
(Executive and Business Coach, SWITZERLAND)


It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change. — Charles Darwin

Today, we live in a VUCA world[1] where the demands on leaders are wider. “It discusses systemic failures and behavioral failures, which are characteristic of organizational failure.” VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity[2]. This describes how unpredictable the world has become and thus requires responses from all of us to remain successful as a society.

In their book “Power Up: Transforming Organizations Through Shared Leadership“[3], David Bradford and Allan Cohen distinguish between heroic and post-heroic leadership.

In their book “Leadership Agility”, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs take up the concepts of Bradford and Cohen and introduce five levels of leadership (Expert, Achiever, Catalyst, Co-Creator, Synergist). In this research paper, I will highlight the first 3 levels. Between the types3 – 5, there is little difference only.

The leaders on levels 1 and 2 are called “heroic leaders”. Heroic leadership “reign” with “Command And Control”

Leaders on levels 3-5 are called “post-heroic leaders”. Post-heroic leaders retain the final decision-making authority and bear the overall responsibility, but they promote shared commitment and shared responsibility. They delegate decisions to the people with the most knowledge.

I show in which situations which of these two types suit best and how coaching supports heroic leaders to develop into post-heroic leaders.

This research paper is mainly based on these two books and explores how coaching can help leaders develop.

Why managers need to change their mindset

In today’s VUCA world, leaders also need to change their leadership style and adapt to the rapidly changing and uncertain conditions.

“In general, the premises of VUCA tend to shape an organization’s capacity to:

  • Anticipate the Issues that Shape
  • Understand the Consequences of Issues and Actions
  • Appreciate the Interdependence of Variables
  • Prepare for Alternative Realities and Challenges
  • Interpret and Address Relevant Opportunities“[4]
  • Post-heroic leadership is necessary to face a VUCA world

Heroic leadership can be very effective in certain situations. However, in this complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing world with a high demand for collaborative problem solving, teamwork, and continuous change in organizations, heroic leadership is no longer the best choice.

The type “Heroic leader” dominates much and doesn’t use the skills of the subordinates appropriately because here the boss decides in every detail and often feels like an expert in all topics, though this is not his task anymore. This discourages employees and makes it impossible for them to take responsibility. They have to follow orders, even though they are the experts in their field and know better. Also, there is a danger that this type of leadership is passed on from one hierarchical level to the text below and is lived out there.

In the current era, we need post-heroic leadership[5] to meet the demands. Here, leaders retain the final decision-making authority and bear the overall responsibility, but they promote shared commitment and shared responsibility. They delegate decisions to where the people with the most knowledge are. This leadership culture motivates employees to commit, take responsibility, and contribute their own creativity.

Simon Sinek brings up his example in his video “Empathy”[6] when he stayed in Las Vegas at the Four Seasons Inn hotel. The hotel was very nice, not just because of the great rooms, but mostly because of the people who worked there. He kept feeling that the employees had taken care of the guests on their own and were not told to be friendly.

He relates the example of Noah, the barista. Noah worked in the coffee stand and was fantastic, friendly, and fun. Noah was so engaged with Simon that Simon bought a coffee from him and he tipped him 100%. He asked Noah if he was having fun on the job. The latter said without hesitation, “yes and it’s so great to work here. When the managers come by here, they ask me how I’m doing and if I need anything to make my job even better.”

Then Noah said something magical: “I also work at Caesar’s Palace, there they always tell us when we’re doing something wrong and do everything they can to make sure we don’t do anything wrong. There I try to stay under the radar, get through the day and just get my paycheck at night.” These two leadership cultures demonstrate post-heroic vs. heroic leadership quite poignantly. Post-heroic leadership is no longer new, but it is still only about 10% of leaders who live a post-heroic leadership style[7].

Requirements for this journey (from heroic to post-heroic leadership) to be successful:

The manager must:

  • understand the purpose and reason for his or her development as a leader and the need for it
  • have the readiness for the journey, actively want it, and understand the reason for it (“what’s in it for me”)
  • be aware that this change is a process, takes a lot of time and energy, and that there will be setbacks. Especially then the person must
  • be accompanied by a coach so that they have stable support and accountability structures in place

Ingredients to help managers change their mindset

Let’s look at how the journey from heroic to post-heroic leadership could look like for a manager. There are several stages the managers need to go through:

Stage 1: Getting to know the theory about the three levels of Leadership Agility

The first step is that the managers get to know and distinguish the three Leadership Agility levels from Joiner & Josephs[8] so that they can also deal with which level is the goal for them.

Expert: These managers invoke their role and need authority to lead. They are the (subject matter) experts and are usually in their role because they were very good at a subject. They can talk in detail with their subordinates and are passionate problem solvers. This often results in the behavior that these managers control their subordinates and hardly cede responsibility. This is where you usually find the “command and control” style of leadership. They often wish they could be cloned. Experts move on the tactical level and dictate directions.

Achiever: These managers lead by motivating others and thereby gain support for strategic change goals. They work cross-functionally and engage in challenging conversations. They are very competitive and move on a strategic level. They push extremely for achieving results. It is important to them that it is “MY WAY”. They have an “OR” mindset, which shows itself through duality. For them, it is winning or lose.

Catalyst: Only a few managers have developed to this level – currently just under 10%. These managers can successfully drive transformational change and are capable of meeting the most complex challenges of the organization. They set purpose and vision, empower their employees by coaching them, learn through experimentation, delegate responsibility, and encourage the empowerment of subordinates. Catalysts always seek feedback and a “WE” culture is very important to them. A Catalyst knows when to act in which mindset and keeps the balance of the 3 levels. He can correctly assess the situation and the best way to act. A Catalyst is a “true leader”[9].

It is not primarily a matter of always acting with the Catalyst Mindset, but of acting on the appropriate level in each case. There are situations in which it is exactly right to act as an expert. If, for example, an experienced doctor is called to an emergency operation in the hospital, he has to act and does not have time to coach the assistant doctor in a Catalyst-like manner, to delegate responsibility, and to ask him what he would do now. In this situation, every second count and so even a doctor who has already reached the Catalyst level must balance and adopt the expert mindset at that moment and simply act.

Stage 2: Awareness of the current leadership mindset/style

The second step towards change is always an awareness of where a person currently is. This awareness is central because it is only then that it becomes clear which path the traveler (leader)must take to reach the next level. The Leadership Agility 360 Assessment[10] is particularly suitable for this assessment, as it assesses vertical (cognitive and emotional, personal growth) and horizontal (new leadership competencies and behaviors) development. Also, the assessment includes quantitative and qualitative feedback and puts this in context, e.g., feedback on pivotal conversations. This shows in detail where the person currently stands.

Stage 3a: Individual Coaching of the Manager

Coaching can be wonderfully built based on the Leadership Agility 360 Assessment.

How coaching can help:

As a first step, it can be useful to help the leader to understand his 360 Assessment Report using coaching and to challenge him. This involves the leader using his awareness to define his own focus areas that he wants to work on to develop from one level to the next. In this phase, the coach can also help the leader to overcome a feeling of overwhelming and his possible concerns.

From Expert to Achiever:

The Achiever is no longer satisfied with solving problems and making incremental improvements. He wants to achieve desired outcomes for the valued enterprise. He also wants to evolve from one level of awareness to the next: from the ability to reflect modestly to networked and systemic reflection. The Achiever evolves from a tactical to a strategic focus. Fundamentally, collaboration is important to the Achiever. He likes to work with others, asks questions, and no longer just gives instructions. He also asks for feedback because he wants to improve. The Achiever can put himself in the shoes of others.

How coaching can help:

The coach can help the leader by asking questions about the larger context and helping him explore what outcomes he wants to achieve. He can also ask him what he needs to think/act in a more connected and systemic way. The leader needs to explore, with the help of the coach, what collaboration brings him and what he needs to contribute to it. Here the coach can also support the leader in changing perspectives.

From Achiever to Catalyst:

In this step, the leader crosses the border to post-heroic leadership. Here, the leader must once again leave much of his power and responsibility.

For the Catalyst, it is no longer enough to achieve desired outcomes; he or she strives for satisfying human contexts that enable the sustainable achievement of desired outcomes. Regarding the level of awareness, the Catalyst wants to evolve from networked, systemic reflecting to the ability to reflect at the moment. The Catalyst evolves his focus from strategic to visionary. He can feel what it is like to have another standing in his shoes and is aware that understanding does not have to be agreed upon.

How coaching can help:

The coach supports the leader in how he can fill the hole that arises from all the letting go in a meaningful way. This phase is very demanding. This change requires even more energy and time than the step from Expert to Achiever.

In this phase, therefore, a great deal of perseverance is needed, since development also takes place more slowly here. The coach supports the leader so that he does not give up, does not start to doubt his results, and continues to pursue his goal with motivation.

The coach can help to understand how the leader can raise his awareness, reflect more at the moment and react in an adapted way. He also supports him to continuously question his values, his mindset, and his behavior.

Stage 3b: Team Coaching

When I write of “team”, I mean e.g. grassroots teams, executive teams, and other groups that form around a particular topic.

  1. Team coaching session: At the beginning of the team coaching, the leader must inform his people that he is in a self-directed change, that he is in control, and not steered by a coach or other people. Also, it is important to say why he wants to change something and what his goal is. He shows that she wants to develop himself, this will also have an impact on the team, and that he wants to take his subordinates with him on the journey.

He also asks for support and gives the team the feeling that they are very important in the whole process because he also wants to rely on the intelligence of the team in the process. Since the more he advances in the process, the more he will only present vision and direction and there would be many opportunities for the team for development to more independence and to take over responsibility in parallel to his development.

The leader has to prepare his people that in his transition from one level to the next there can occur situations where he has to adapt his style according to the situation (maybe he has to be an expert again situationally and the people need the trust that he is not the “old” again). As long as the leader has not completely reached the next level and also his people are not ready yet, the team (where he is also part of) is not 100% ready yet and the leader may step into a situation where he still has his mindset on relinquishing the responsibility. Ideally, the team does a retrospective (see Stage 4) after such a situation has occurred to analyze the situation and agree on further steps to get back on track as a whole team.

In normal office operations, the situation rarely becomes so dire that it is a matter of life and death, and so when the leader and the team have reached the next level, they should hardly have to go back to an earlier level and, for example, revert to the expert role. This is different in the above example of the experienced doctor, who simply has to act himself when it comes to saving lives.

Following coaching sessions: It is crucial in such an important process to coach the team as a whole from time to time or as needed to work on common challenges. For the leader to be able to work towards his goal, the whole team is also needed. Only when each team member is ready for the next step, the leader can e. g. hand over responsibility and some people are ready to take it over.

How coaching can help:

During the initial team workshop, the coach supports the leader and mentions that there will also be team coaching during the process. If employees feel insecure, uncomfortable, or have any need for coaching, they can book a session at any time. The coach can also intervene and ask powerful questions to get everyone back on the same page.

In the beginning, the coach can support people in understanding what makes this change important and gain clarity on what it means for them. Focusing on listening to individuals’ concerns will facilitate the process and avoid the emergence of rumors.

Later in the process, there may well be setbacks, so the coach can support the team to build renewed motivation and energy to continue on the path. The coach can help them overcome fears, address their insecurities, and possibly change their perspectives.

Stage 4: Regular Retrospectives

Retrospectives are a very helpful tool in this process. They help leaders and the whole team to regularly question themselves and check where they are on the right track, whether they are still going in the right direction. It is also about adapting their path if they notice that they are deviating from the desired goal. Inspect and adapt are central to improving here. It is about becoming aware of what worked well and what needs to be improved. This is also the moment when feedback is sought and taken into account for the way forward.

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen offer a structure for a Retrospective with five phases in their book Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great[11]:

  1. Setting the stage – welcome the participants, tell them what will happen, offer confidentiality and maybe start with an icebreaker
  2. Gather Data – invite participants to share data around the topic of the Retrospective
  3. Generate Insights – help participants to dig deeper and understand what’s behind this data
  4. Decide What to Do – define actions around who will do what when
  5. Close the Retrospective – thank the participants for their openness and work and make a feedback round

How coaching can help:

A leader can be supported by the coach in a 1-on-1 session to question himself, to build awareness of how the leader feels in his role, how he can profitably use the feedback of his subordinates.

A group coach can also coach with a team of e.g., leaders who are all on this journey, or also with a team that supports a leader on his way. These 5 phases help the coach to structure this part of the team coaching in a promising way.


Our world is constantly changing. The coronavirus has shown how an unexpected event in the environment can change the economic conditions worldwide within a short time.

For example, some trainers in a field who had a good life with giving local courses become aware that now all the courses are made remotely. And as the courses are available on the internet (which was not allowed in the past in this community), trainers from all over the world can offer these courses. A course that costs $2000 in the U. S. is now available for $200 on the internet. This way, the whole market for at least some of these trainers in the U. S. and Europe has broken away completely.

In the past 30 years, the world has become faster and more global, there is more rivalry with cheaper products and others. Like in previous decades, economic theories and leadership models of the past do not fit the new situation. Today we talk of a VUCA world.

In more and more companies, the insight has grown that employees must be involved in evolutions and decisions. It is not enough that a manager decides on his own what the rest of the division shall do in the future.

In their book ‘leadership agility’, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs call them ‘Heroic Leaders’ and they propose a new approach with ‘Post-Heroic Leaders’ with different competencies. Then, ‘Heroic Leaders’ need to learn the competencies of a ‘Post-Heroic Leader’ and develop themselves further.

I describe both types, the difference between them, how the old type can be transitioned into the new type, how this can be achieved easiest and best and sustainable, which approach, and how the employees can be included in the change.

However, it is often difficult for managers to get aware that they have to change their behavior: “Why should I change something, this has worked ever since?”. It is also because they would have to face up to themselves, give up their status symbol power and well-known areas which they were familiar with. It is difficult to reach but achievable with the help of a coach. The Manager will have to find out whether he is ready for giving up his control over every step of his subordinates and ready to revise his mindset.


Bennett, Nathan; Lemoine, G. James (2014) What VUCA Really Means for You, Available at: January 2021)

Bradford, David L.; Cohen, Allan R. (1998)Power Up: Transforming Organizations through Shared Leadership, Wiley, New York

ChangeWise (2018)Leadership Agility 360, Available at January 2021)

Derby, Esther; Larsen, Diana (2012)Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, The Pragmatic Bookshelf, Dallas

Joiner, B.; Josephs, Stephen (2007) Leadership Agility – Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint San Francisco

Rees Anderson, Amy (2015)The characteristics of a True Leader, Available at January 2021)

Sinek, Simon (2017) Empathy – Best Speech of All Time, Available at January 2021)

Tams, Carsten (2018) Bye-Bye, Heroic Leadership. Here Comes Shared Leadership, Available at: January 2021)

‘Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity’ (2021) Wikipedia, Available at,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity (Accessed: January 2021)

[1]Wikipedia (2021)

[2]Bennett and Lemoine (2014)

[3]Bradford, Cohen (1998)

[4]Wikipedia (2021)

[5]Tams (2018)

[6]Sinek (2007)

[7]Joiner and Josephs (2007)

[8]Joiner and Josephs (2007)

[9]Rees Anderson(2015)

[10]ChangeWise (2018)

[11]Derby and Larsen (2012)

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